Understanding drug addiction and how to help

People talking to each other during group therapy.

More than 23 million adults in the U.S. have struggled with problematic drug abuse, according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).1

That number alone is startling enough but think about all the people helping the 23 million people fight their addiction. Whether navigating treatment options, lending a caring ear or picking up the broken pieces after a relapse, helping someone cope with a drug addiction can be a scary and frustrating challenge. Here’s a look at what to do to help take care of yourself—and your loved one.

How do drugs affect the brain?

Drug addiction may cause your loved one to be compulsive and difficult to control, even if they are fully aware of how their actions bring harmful consequences. Drug addiction is a complicated disease. Quitting takes more than good intentions or willpower. Because drugs change how the brain works, quitting is very difficult, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse.2

Understanding how drug abuse works means understanding how the brain works. We all have a “reward circuit” in the brain that encourages us to keep doing actions that make us happy, like eating, getting physical activity or enjoying time with family. But when a person takes drugs, their “reward circuit” is hit with a chemical messenger called dopamine, which plays a role in how we feel pleasure. Everyone makes dopamine naturally in the body, but when a person does drugs, they feel a surge of dopamine.3

And then, the spiral begins: Your loved one begins to chase that “high” they had when they first did drugs and will do more and more drugs to try to get the same level of pleasure. Meanwhile, all the things that used to bring them joy can’t compete because their brain has adapted to getting pleasure from drugs.

Get drug addiction treatment for your loved ones

The good news is that drug addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed, says National Institute on Drug Abuse.4

Common treatments for drug abuse involve psychotherapy, medication and/or support groups. Because there are so many options for services, we recommend calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotline at 800-662-HELP (4357). This free, confidential, 24/7 information service number (available in both English and Spanish) provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations in your area.5

And get support for yourself

Your loved one’s addiction may take a toll on your mental health and finances. To help avoid burning out, you can build your support system. Here are a few ideas:

  • Talk to someone: Join an online or in-person support group to share what you’re going through with others who are dealing with similar issues.
  • Practice self-care: Watching your loved one struggle with their addiction is stressful. Take time out of your day to do activities that help you unwind, like gardening, trying a new recipe or meditating.
  • Find a financial advisor: From rehab to counseling to legal fees, supporting someone with an addiction can be financially taxing. A financial advisor can help make sure you don’t drain all your resources.


  1. “10 percent of US adults have drug use disorder at some point in their lives,” National Institutes of Health, last accessed October 21, 2021, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/10-percent-us-adults-have-drug-use-disorder-some-point-their-lives.
  2. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, last accessed October 21, 2021, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction.
  3. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts.”
  4. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts.”
  5. “SAMHSA National Hotline,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, last accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.